Truth elusive in race-tainted murder mystery

Left to right: Colleen Walker, Clinton Speedy and Evelyn Greenup Image copyright Supplied
Image caption Colleen Walker (L), Clinton Speedy (C) and Evelyn Greenup (R) were all abducted and murdered in the town of Bowraville

In the early 1990s, three Aboriginal children living in the same street in an Australian country town were abducted and murdered within the space of a few months. More than a quarter of a century on, their families hope their killer may finally be brought to justice.

The sole suspect in the case is Jay Hart, a former resident of Bowraville, an inland town about 500 kilometres (310 miles) north of Sydney. Police allege he was seen at the scene shortly before each child disappeared.

First to vanish was 16-year-old Colleen Walker, following a party in September 1990. Her body has never been found, although her clothes turned up in a nearby river.

Four-year-old Evelyn Greenup went missing the following month, after apparently being snatched from her bed during the night. And Clinton Speedy, 16, disappeared in February 1991 after visiting Mr Hart's caravan with his girlfriend. Evelyn's and Clinton's bodies were discovered in bushland outside Bowraville.

During a legal saga stretching back 26 years, Mr Hart was acquitted in separate trials of murdering Evelyn and Clinton. He has always denied any involvement. However, detectives remain convinced that he is connected to the deaths of all three children.

New South Wales police acknowledge the original investigation was botched, and hampered by institutional racism.

Like many Australian country towns, Bowraville has a history of fraught race relations. Only a few decades ago, Aboriginal people could not get served in cafes and had to enter the cinema via a side door. Pubs were segregated.

Tensions still simmer in the town, where many locals resent the spotlight which the case has brought.

When their families reported the children missing, officers said they had probably "gone walkabout". Vital evidence was lost and, rather than hunt for a serial killer, police called in a child abuse unit to investigate the parents.

Inquiries and inquests

The families, who have campaigned tirelessly, succeeded in having the murders reinvestigated in 1997. In 2006, they convinced the state government to follow the UK's example and overturn double jeopardy laws preventing a suspect being tried twice for the same crime. And this month, after their previous requests had been rejected, they persuaded the government to refer the case to the Court of Criminal Appeal.

The appeal judges will consider "fresh and compelling" evidence which could see Mr Hart, a white man, re-tried for Evelyn's and Clinton's killings.

What gives the relatives grounds for hope is that, for the first time, a court will examine all three cases. "We've just always wanted to be able to argue the three together," Clinton's sister-in-law, Leonie Duroux, told the BBC. "The police have named 24 links between them, so if a court hears just one case, they don't get the full picture."

It has been a long and frustrating fight for the Bowraville families. As well as the two police investigations and two trials, there have been three coronial inquests and, in 2014, a parliamentary inquiry. Since the double jeopardy law was abolished in 2006, the relatives have had three separate appeal applications knocked back.

Image copyright 9 News
Image caption Jay Hart, the sole suspect in the Bowraville murders case, was found not guilty in two separate trials

At the time of the killings, Mr Hart, a labourer, often spent time around the former Bowraville Aboriginal Mission, on the fringes of the town, where many local Aboriginal people still live.

An inquest in 2004 heard that Colleen disappeared after he was seen following her home. Earlier that evening, at a party, she had rebuffed his advances. Clinton went missing after spending the night in Mr Hart's caravan with his girlfriend. Mr Hart was allegedly seen walking out of Evelyn's bedroom on the night she vanished.

Mr Hart was acquitted of Clinton's murder in 1994, and of Evelyn's murder in 2006. Both children died from blows to the head.

The new evidence, police say, includes testimony from two delivery drivers who saw a white man standing over the body of a black teenager on the road outside Bowraville the morning after Clinton disappeared. Mr Hart also allegedly confessed to the crimes in jail while awaiting trial.

'Unresolved trauma'

After so many false hopes and setbacks, Clinton's family is "optimistic but reserved", according to his cousin, Karla McGrady. "It's not the victory we want, but it's a milestone," she said, welcoming the decision by the state's attorney general, Gabrielle Upton, to refer the case for appeal.

"We understand there's still a long process from here, and we'll continue to do whatever it takes," Ms McGrady says. "We carry on just because of the love we have for our kids and a wish to see justice served. We've never considered giving up, because they deserve better than that. We need answers, too, because we've been living with unresolved trauma for 26 years."

Detective Chief Inspector Gary Jubelin led the reinvestigation in 1997 and has been an outspoken advocate for the families since.

When Mr Jubelin first became involved in Bowraville, the children's relatives told him that "no one cared because they're Aboriginal".

He told the BBC: "I didn't believe it then. Now I can say they were spot on, and that had an impact on the level of response.

"Three children were murdered, and this case was not given the attention it warranted. As I've said publicly, I think race played a part in it, and also socio-economic issues."

The delay in taking the children's disappearances seriously led to, among other things, Mr Hart's caravan not being seized for 10 days. A detective with no previous experience of homicide inquiries was put in charge of the investigation.

'Under the radar'

However, it was not only police who failed to rise to the occasion. Until recently, the case received mostly scant attention from the media and wider Australian society.

"If it had been three white kids from an affluent Sydney suburb, more pressure would have been brought to bear to speed things up and make sure everything was done properly," said one police source. "But it didn't grab the attention of the community, and so it sort of slipped under the radar."

While Mr Hart has left town and changed his name, his stepfather, Noel Short, still lives there, as do some of the children's relatives, including Clinton's father, Thomas Speedy.

One outcome of the case has been improved training for police in dealing with Aboriginal communities, and overcoming communication barriers. "I'd like to think we've learnt from it and this type of thing would never happen again," said Mr Jubelin.

He paid tribute to the families' courage and dignity. "One thing I'm saying to them is that this is even bigger than the fight for justice for your children.

"You're making a state, maybe even a country, look at itself. That's really powerful stuff, and it can potentially be a watershed moment."

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